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Waking up at 3:23 every night, how bad is that?

3.23 am. I know it before I look. It’s a set scenario. I’m awake again. And it’s between three and four again. Even sharper: it is again between 3:18 a.m. and 3:27 a.m. Every night again. Eyes wide open. Still way too early for the alarm clock. I do what I know I shouldn’t do: reach for the smartphone. Even if it’s just to see what time it is. Cheering because the clock confirms my hypothesis of 3-4. Even though I know: there is nothing as bad as blue smartphone light when you wake up at night. It is the signal to your brain that the day is starting. And cheering is bad for your sleep, I know that too. Too much adrenaline and all that.

Besides, I have to pee. I convince myself that I should stay lying down because if I stand up, I risk waking up completely, or so I tell myself. And also: the nest is too hot to leave. Twenty minutes later I go anyway, because the bladder pressure continues to throw a spanner in the way of sleep. Oh well, I’m awake now, so here with the internet! I guiltily scroll through the social media.

Halfway through the night

At that moment everything comes together. Synchronicity par excellence. Or algorithmic cleverness, that is also possible. Facebook shows me a link that sticks: Why Do Some People Always Wake Up At 3am Or 4am Every Night? And I actually read: “If you regularly catch yourself staring at the ceiling at three or four in the morning, you are in good company. It is indeed a phenomenon. And one in three people do it.” According to the authors, it may have to do with the sequence of our sleep cycles. Suppose most people go to bed at 11 p.m. to midnight and get up at 7 to 8 a.m., then you are about halfway through around 3 to 4 p.m., just as you enter lighter sleep.” Check: exactly my hours.

Okay, not that we should just believe everything the internet tells us, but if this were true, it would be a great comfort to the person who feels lonely awake in the middle of the night, who is the only one tormented by an overactive brain while the rest of the world has an off button that works flawlessly. I look through the window, see dozens of dark windows. Until last night I didn’t know any better than that there was a person sleeping blissfully behind every window, now I suspect there are at least seven awake sleepers there. The club of 3-4 that is awake for a while while the rest of the world sleeps, the club that opens its eyes to check whether everything is still okay, whether the world is still turning, the club that watches over the rest. As Leonard Cohen once said: “The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.”

“Slept poorly, woke up twice, sigh”

But be careful. Just because I belong to the 3-4 club doesn’t mean I would diagnose myself with insomnia. Because when I sleep, I’m gone. Hours. Deep. Dreaming. Only there is that wake-up cramp between 3 and 4. That’s it. Half an hour or an hour later I’m gone again. I don’t mind it myself. Others do. On group trips, overnight stays or weekends with friends, I am always surprised how many people answer sullenly when asked whether they slept well: “hm no, woke up”, “phew, I was awake again.” But hey, one insomniac is not the same of course. Or maybe there are two types of people in the 3-4 club? Those who wake up, accept it and go back to sleep. And those who wake up, worry and can’t go back to sleep because they’re too busy? Sleep is very important.

Professor An Mariman, sleep specialist at Ghent University, also knows this: “Never worry, that is rule one. Everyone wakes up a few times a night anyway. This increases with age. But that in itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem when you start to worry about it, start to worry, because that is precisely why you can have a sleeping problem.”

To be clear, she is not talking about insomnia due to physical problems. Back or other pain can also keep you awake, but that is different from waking up spontaneously, feeling anxious because you wake up and not being able to go back to sleep because you are feeling anxious.

Join the club

Mariman does not want to say in so many words that the 3-4 club does exist, although it does not sound illogical: “From a clinical point of view I can say that you have a greater chance of conscious awakening in the second half of the night than in the first part. We know that you go through the same cycles every night: superficial sleep, deep sleep and dream sleep. Such a cycle lasts an hour and a half and then starts again. But the further into the night, the less deep the deep sleep and the easier it is to wake up. If you live in a structured system, you will have gone through the cycles at the same time, and it can therefore happen that you consciously wake up at the same time.”

Not abnormal. On the contrary. So don’t rush. And don’t look at that damn phone. “That is very bad,” said Mariman. “It is best to lie still and lie still. If it takes too long, you can get up, have a drink, or, if you are hungry, eat something, because it is difficult to fall asleep when you are hungry. Maybe read a few pages, that also helps. When it gets too late and the alarm clock approaches, it’s better to just start the day. That is also better for sleep pressure the next night. Moreover, if you fall asleep too late and the alarm clock wakes you up in the middle of a sleep cycle, you won’t wake up feeling very fit.”

Don’t make a problem if it’s not necessary, it’s kind of my motto, and that also applies to waking up at 3:23 am. Because I’m usually dozing again by 4:07 am. First I sin against the main rule and read a bit on that phone, count a few breaths – exhaling longer than inhaling – and be happy because I belong to the club and am not the only one in the world who lies staring into the night . Even if only for a moment.

Chunk sleep

Besides, everything used to be different. Sleepers in pre-industrial times could only dream – pun intended – of the kind of uninterrupted sleep we consider normal. In his travelogue Journey with a Donkey (1879), writer Robert Louis Stevenson (known for Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island) tells how he got up at night, got a taste of life, started messing around in nature and then went to sleep again. He described it as “a nocturnal resurrection.”

It is also what Roger Ekirch writes in his book At day’s close, about the relationship between man and the night. For example, he talks about segmented sleep, something that was very normal back then: sleeping for a few hours after dinner, waking up after midnight for a chat, prayer, some writing, thinking or sex and then sleeping until the sun rises. The 3-4 club may have been the 1-2 club at the time, but the principle was probably the same: no stress, that sleep will return.

You can read more thoughts on life in the blog From the heart.

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